Commentary

Cardinals have that winning formula

Despite a revolving door of players, St. Louis has developed a culture of success

Originally Published: October 22, 2013
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It's October, and here they are again.

It's October, and here are the St. Louis Cardinals, doing what they do.

They're back in another World Series, for the second time in three years, the third time in eight years, the fourth time in 10 years.

[+] EnlargeDavid Freese
Elsa/Getty ImagesDavid Freese is one of only six players who played for the Cardinals during the first two rounds of this postseason who was also with the team when they won the World Series in 2011.

It's their ninth trip to the postseason since the year 2000. They just made their sixth trip to an National League Championship Series in the past decade, their seventh in the past 12 Octobers.

It's October, and this has become a way of life. It's amazing, really.

They play in a smaller TV market than Tampa-St. Petersburg, Minneapolis-St. Paul or (we kid you not) Cleveland.

They've spent 429 million fewer payroll dollars over the past seven seasons than the Yankees, $154 million fewer than the Tigers, $72 million fewer than the White Sox and -- here it comes -- $114 million fewer than (gulp) the Cubs.

And here's the most astonishing part of all:

This trip to the World Series will be as notable for who isn't part of it as who is.

• Two years ago, the four pitchers who started games for the Cardinals in the World Series against Texas were Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Edwin Jackson. Not one of them will throw a pitch in this World Series.

• Two years ago, Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes, Marc Rzepczynski, Jake Westbrook and Fernando Salas kept marching out of the Cardinals' bullpen, over and over and over again. Not one of them will throw a pitch in this World Series, either.

• Four of the eight position players who started Game 1 of that World Series won't be anywhere to be found on the Cardinals' lineup card for this World Series. Those four would be Rafael Furcal, Nick Punto, Lance Berkman and some dude named Albert Pujols.

• And whatever happened to Tony La Russa, the guy who used to manage, micromanage, mega-manage and stage-manage the heck out of this team, anyway?

That is a monstrous amount of change in just two years, especially for a win-the-World-Series kind of team. Think about this long and hard. No Tony. No Albert. No Dave Duncan, the pitching coach/guru who changed so many careers. No Chris Carpenter. A completely overhauled pitching staff. A lineup with a 50 percent turnover rate. …

And somehow, it feels as if nothing about the Cardinals has changed. How is that possible, anyway?

"It's the St. Louis Cardinals," said third baseman David Freese, the St. Louis native who grew up to play third base for a team he loves. "I think it's that simple. From the DeWitts [in the owners box] all the way down, they just know how to win."

He thinks it's that simple. It can't possibly be that simple. The universe doesn't work that way. Baseball doesn't work that way. No one ever has it all figured out. We know that intuitively.

But what sets the Cardinals apart is that, no matter how they go about trying to win, it always feels the same. Always.

Only Yadier Molina remains from the 2004 World Series team. Only Molina and Adam Wainwright remain from the 2006 World Series team. But there is an attitude the Cardinals play with every October, and it has been handed down from generation to generation, Wainwright says.

It's "that attitude," he said, "that when playoff time starts coming around, that's when you play your best ball. When Tony was here, when Red Schoendienst was here, when Whitey [Herzog] was here, that same mentality was transferred. So that Cardinal Way that everyone's heard about, that we like to talk about so much, that's what brings that on in my mind."

Those of us who have spent a lot of time around the Cardinals talk about how unique, how special their culture is. It sounds cliché if you're looking from the outside in. But it's the real deal when you see it up close.

Preparation. Information. Dedication. Winning. Everyone in the Cardinals' clubhouse understands the importance of all of that. Speaks that language. Takes the field with that mindset.

The core in 2006 -- Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Pujols and Carpenter -- passed those values along to the next generation. The core in 2011 -- Carpenter, Wainwright, Molina, Pujols and even men such as Berkman and Skip Schumaker -- handed them down to the next group in line. The new manager, Mike Matheny, played for the former manager, La Russa, and grasped from the beginning what that culture was all about.

And now here is a team with 10 rookies, a team with a younger average roster than the Pirates, a team in which 17 of the 25 players on the NLCS roster had never even been arbitration-eligible, heading for another World Series. As if nothing had changed.

When, in reality, nearly everything had changed.

"I just think we learned," said Freese, one of those "young guys" two years ago, an October fixture now. "We learned from the veterans. And it happens, year in and year out. … We take it to heart when we put on this uniform. And we keep trying to pass it down, year after year after year."

Still, it is exceptionally rare for a team to win the World Series and get back two years later with this many changes in between. Of the 25 Cardinals players who appeared in a box score during the first two rounds of this postseason, just six played in the 2011 World Series.

And yes, we really did say six: Freese, Molina, Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso and Lance Lynn.

Just for perspective's sake, the 2013 Yankees used 10 players who were on their World Series roster four years ago. There were still 10 members of the 2010 champs, the Giants, on the roster of this year's Giants. The 2013 Rangers were still employing a dozen members of their 2011 World Series team.

And the Cardinals were down to six survivors from the team they ran out there in that same World Series -- seven if you count Allen Craig, who will return from the disabled list in this World Series.

So that's 19 players who either got hurt or disappeared, over the course of 24 months. Now add in the exit of the manager, the pitching coach and the future GM of the Astros (Jeff Luhnow) who presided over the drafting of this entire wave of young players.

And still, in the midst of all that transition, this team has won 25 postseason games over the past three Octoberfests -- as many as the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers combined.

Now ask yourself: What was the degree of difficulty of achieving that, and getting this franchise back to the World Series in just two years, doing it the way they've done it?

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMichael Wacha, a first-round pick (19th overall) of the Cardinals in last year's draft, is 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in three starts this postseason.

"I knew we were going to have to do things differently," GM John Mozeliak said. "And it really came down to redeploying resources, how we would do that. … I knew it was going to require a different strategy. Fortunately for us, the one we went with worked. It hasn't been perfect. Things happen. One compliment to this organization is, when we have to adapt or call an audible, we're able to do so."

So Pujols leaves, and Craig becomes an All-Star. … Craig gets hurt, and Matt Adams hits cleanup. … Carpenter goes down, and Michael Wacha (the compensation pick for losing Pujols) turns into Bob Gibson. … And what happens when they need to turn to Plan C at closer, after Motte has Tommy John surgery and Edward Mujica hits the wall? In marches Trevor Rosenthal, to fire seven scoreless postseason innings, as radar guns explode from coast to coast.

This is the essence of the Cardinals. … Descalso teaches Matt Carpenter how to play second base in February and March -- and Carpenter then takes his job. … Jay takes a rising star like Oscar Taveras under his wing in spring training, knowing that by next year, Taveras could replace him in center.

Ever wondered how so many young players could possibly fit into a team with win-the-World-Series ambitions so seamlessly? That pretty much sums it up.

The funny thing is, Mozeliak admits that when they won two years ago, "I remember how I was thinking, 'This is just a fleeting moment in time.' Because I knew we were going to have to replace the manager, I knew we were going to have a difficult negotiation coming up with Albert. The balance of the club was in limbo, directionally."

Well, now here it is, just two Octobers later. And it sure doesn't feel "fleeting" anymore. Does it?

It feels like just another October in the life of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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